BEYOND THE VOID:
TRACING SITUATED KNOWLEDGES IN MINING LANDSCAPES OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
I have recently submitted my PhD at the University of Queensland in the Sustainable Minerals Institute's Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation.
The fieldwork site I have focused on is Leigh Creek, a region with a recently closed coal mine in the South Australian Outback.
In a dusty ute we hurtle through the blackened bowels of an open cut mine deep in the South Australian outback. Our makeshift tour guide, a seasoned miner who has been assigned this easy Friday afternoon task, explains how to see where they are preparing the site for closure: the newly introduced soils are a different colour to the deep grey earth that is slowly being covered over. In the distance we can see where two person contingents have been taking turns flattening and contouring the piles of waste rock that ring the site, readying them for the precious loads of topsoil that will allow the slow-growing arid shrubs to take root. Eventually these mounds will become subtle visual buffers, obscuring the pits that will endure in perpetuity, remnants of an age of industrial expansion.
The complex process of negotiating and deciding on the final outcome of industrial landscapes such as mine sites has remained largely underexplored, despite their scale, ubiquity, and the environmental concerns that surround them. The materiality of the mining landscape is a topic frequently disconnected from dealings with local stakeholders, and instead the development of relations between company and community is defined through social and economic contributions. State governments’ rehabilitation hierarchies of land use preferences prioritise a return to the original condition of the land, limiting the degree to which mining companies have been willing to investigate alternative options for the final landforms.
This research fills the gap in knowledge by exploring the conditions of the mining landscape and reframes approaches within the mine planning and closure processes by adopting a critical geographies lens, with a focus on feminist and more-than-human geographies. I take the key feminist theoretical concepts of situated knowledges and ontological politics and demonstrate their applicability within the context of the mine site through an Actor-Network Theory methodology, using interviews and observation within the case study site of Leigh Creek, South Australia. In doing so I identify a range of individual socio-material networks, or assemblages, and show how they have specific ways of seeing and understanding the mining landscape that have not only helped define their preferences for the end landscape design but have actively altered the planning process. This theoretical approach allows a more complex understanding of the alliances and entanglements of small-scale assemblages that influence landscape changes throughout the life of mine, but which lie unrecognised and unaccommodated by official processes. Unlike more traditional social science, this geographic approach has embraced and questioned the physical, exploring how competing ontological interpretations of mining landscapes influence planning decisions or leave many potential futures lying dormant within the modified landforms.
This dissertation explores and experiments with ficto-critical approaches to writing and conceptualising not only the human stakeholders of the mine site, but also the nonhuman, inhuman and more-than-human. To do this I build on existing feminist approaches to more-than-human worldings and their accompanying storytelling techniques in order to reframe and review accepted relationships in the context of the mine site, and argue for more complex and less sanitised understandings of the landscape of the mine site. These writing experiments do the work of fostering empathy, and clearly envisioning alternative futures and ways of existing that are otherwise difficult to share across the epistemological boundaries of government, mining company, and stakeholder community.
This dissertation takes the position that final landform planning is not simply a regulatory process, but is socially and culturally influenced. With the spectre of future coal mine closures haunting Australia and the globe, it is a crucial time to develop a better understanding of these material and social intersections. I argue that more complex enquiry into industrial landscape planning that goes beyond box-ticking not only has the potential to improve outcomes for all interested parties, but has become necessary as our current Anthropocenic condition problematizes the cultural continuation of a nature-culture dichotomy.